Review of the Papers, Wednesday 26 September


  • An independent exams watchdog is to be created in an effort to limit the annual debate about grade inflation and "dumbing down", the government will announce today. Ed Balls, the children's secretary, will announce plans to split the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in two. One body will establish and oversee the curriculum and exams system, the other will act as regulator. He will tell Labour's conference in Bournemouth: "Let's put behind us once and for all the old sterile debate about dumbing down. I want to end young people being told that the GCSE or A-level grades they are proud of aren't worth what they used to be. I want parents, universities, employers and young people themselves to be confident that exam standards are being maintained.",,2177117,00.html
  • An end to "permanent revolution" in the health service was promised on Tuesday by Alan Johnson, the health secretary, as he pledged tougher action against patients who assault staff and a £97m boost in the NHS's security budget. Mr Johnson's aides insisted that his reference to permanent revolution applied merely to the repeated restructuring of health authorities and that hospital reconfigurations would go ahead where they were clinically led and needed. But opponents of the government's market-style reforms to the NHS drew comfort from the absence of any reference to them in the health secretary's speech. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the biggest health service union, said: "We were really pleased that Alan made no mention of markets, competition and choice in improving our health service." It was, he said, "very refreshing to hear a health secretary talk about the real issues rather than the harangues about health workers being the problem, or only concerned with producer interest. I can sense a clear, welcome and long overdue change of tone".
  • Alan Johnson has given a heavy hint that thousands more midwives are to be recruited after a review of the NHS to be published next month. In his speech to the conference the Health Secretary addressed concerns that maternity services were becoming dangerously overstretched. The Royal College of Midwives believes that the NHS needs 5,000 more midwives to cope with demand over the next five years. Mr Johnson said: "We have initially planned an extra 1,000 by 2009. If birth rates continue to rise we will need to train more." The review - being carried out by Lord Darzi, the Health Minister - is expected to recommend a significant recruitment programme for midwives and specialist nurses, according to a Whitehall. Funds for the recruitment drive will be earmarked in the spending review, also expected next month. Mr Johnson tried to placate unions angry about staggered pay awards by praising NHS staff and promising to do more to protect them from abuse. He also spelled out details of powers to be given to the new healthcare regulator to improve hospital cleanliness. Announcing a £97 million fund to increase protection for staff, he said that anyone guilty of abusing staff should face the possibility of jail.
  • Peter Hain announced plans to use public sector contracts to boost loss-making factories for disabled workers as he headed off a row with trade unions at Labour's conference. Mr Hain, the Work and Pensions Secretary, pledged to urge ministers to use powers to allocate procurement contracts to Remploy, the government company that provides jobs for severely disabled workers, and to similar supported posts. He intervened further in a row over Remploy's plans to close or merge half of its factories for disabled workers, saying that none must shut without the agreement of ministers, while talks with unions continue. The GMB, which has led the campaign against the planned closure or merger of 42 Remploy factories, hailed his commitments as a major change in policy and will put on hold plans to call strikes The union will announce today the results of a ballot on industrial action among Remploy members, who are expected to vote by a large margin for strikes, but will now pursue new talks in an attempt to settle the dispute.
  • Environmental groups reacted with alarm today to news that the Government was backing a multi-million pound feasibility study on the construction of a Severn barrage to generate up to 5 per cent of the UK's electricity. Campaigners said that a dam across the Severn estuary could have massive environmental impacts and called on the Government to look at alternative ways of harnessing the river's massive tidal power. The estuary, which has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, provides mudflats, saltmarshes, rocky islands and food for some 65,000 birds in winter. In August the Government sought to designate the estuary a Special Area of Conservation, but did not rule out proposals for a tidal barrage across the Severn. John Hutton, the Business and Enterprise Secretary, announced the feasibility study - which could result in one of the world's biggest civil engineering projects - in a speech to Labour's annual conference in Bournemouth today. He described the project as "truly visionary" and added: "The Government Gordon Brown leads will not be among those who say they want to tackle global warming by moving to low carbon energy sources but then oppose every opportunity to do so."
  • The UK Tea Council broke advertising rules by exaggerating the drink's health benefits, the industry watchdog ruled. Its poster recommended drinking four cups of tea daily to "contribute to a diet rich in antioxidants". The advertisement said: "Five portions of fruit and veg plus four cups of tea. It all adds up to a healthy diet." But after consulting an expert, the Advertising Standards Authority found no evidence "to firmly substantiate" any health benefit from drinking four cups of tea per day. It found the poster in breach of three clauses of the advertising code. The watchdog also criticised the UK Tea Council for making reference to the Government's "five a day" campaign that could have misled people that the poster was government-linked. An independent expert who advised the authority said that there was mounting and promising evidence that tea has a protective effect against cancer and heart disease, but findings are yet to be confirmed through human trials.


  • David Cameron, Conservative leader, has challenged Gordon Brown to end the phoney election war and name a date, in a sign that Labour's self-generated hype about an autumn poll could backfire. Mr Cameron's entourage believes the prime minister's team has made a tactical blunder by inflating speculation about a snap election and that it will unite the Tories at their annual conference, starting in Blackpool on Sunday. Some Labour ministers suspect Mr Cameron will use his keynote conference speech next week to renew his challenge to Mr Brown to call an election, and that the prime minister could be portrayed as running scared if he fails to do so. "There are risks to Gordon marching us up the hill," admitted one minister, noting that many Labour activists at the party's conference in Bournemouth are raring to fight an election and could be deflated if a poll were delayed. In Bournemouth on Tuesday there was already a sense of anti-climax among Labour activists who have been wound up for an election but who heard no clue from Mr Brown about its timing in his speech on Monday.